Star Wars Books, Issue #2 – Thrawn (2017): Averting The Translator Archetype

Written by Stonegood

Hello! I would like to give a small introduction to myself and this project before I get started. I was introduced to Phantom Menace when I was nine years old and have been a life-long fan of Star Wars ever since. While I was growing up, I heard a lot about the extra stories being told through novels. I was intrigued, but I was never able to obtain any that were on my reading level. As an adult, I was intimidated by the sheer number of books I would have to catch up on and never started my journey into that rich universe. “Luckily,” during Disney’s acquisition of the franchise, they wiped clear all of those stories and gave fans like me a fresh start. There are only a handful of novels for me to read and I am ready to start this adventure! I am reading these novels aloud, piece-by-piece, every other week on my livestream and putting my thoughts to digital paper with these articles for I Rebel. Please note, as of writing this article, I have only read chapters 1 through 6 (SPOILER WARNING for those who have not read it yet) and there is a likelihood that my predictions are incorrect; only reading more will tell! 

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Language is an important tool in storytelling. The words the characters speak and read add depth to the tale and help build the world they are living in. The characters in Lucas’s Star Wars, speak a wide-range of languages adding to the narrative and even give the reader a better understanding of who the character is, where they come from, and how they will act in future events. Throughout Star Wars’ multi-media history, the archetype of the translator has been modeled and led by the golden protocol droid C-3PO. C-3PO has had a role in every Trilogy film, as well as the Clone Wars series, and it has always been the same: his knowledge of language is integral to the heroes and their adventure, he is generally overlooked by the group, and is accepting of what small control he holds over his own life. The same cannot be said about the imperial cadet Eli Vanto in Thrawn by Timothy Zhan.

Eli’s knowledge of the Sy Bisti language is not integral to Thrawn’s adventure. Eli’s understanding of Sy Bisti is minimal. His knowledge of this language comes from his family’s active trading with aliens of Wild Space. Through these dealings, Eli has experienced the language written on shipping crates and inventory lists. The young boy has even heard fantastical stories about the people that speak this language during these interactions. Cadet Vanto’s retellings of these Chiss myths intrigues Thrawn, and while having an audience with the emperor Thrawn asks a favor. “I am still inexpert at your language. I would request that my translator be transferred to duty by my side.” Up to this point, Thrawn is obviously proficient in Basic; he has spoken to numerous Imperial Navy officers and communicated with little confusion or error. Yet, he still insists to have a translator accompany him at all times. Emperor Palpatine points this out to Thrawn when he states, “Your eloquence belies your need for a translator,” but he ultimately accepts Thrawn’s request. Compared to C-3PO, whose language skills are crucial to the rebels’ success on Endor, Cadet Vanto appears like he is just along for the ride.

Although he tries to be as inconspicuous as possible, Eli is never overlooked by his superior officers or his overseer. When Captain Parck’s shuttle lands on the unnamed planet with a mysterious settlement, the cadet constantly questions why he is there. He knows he does not have any “particular expertise in unknown artifacts or tech” or requires planetside experience for his current career trajectory within the empire. As soon as they approach the settlement, Captain Parck, Colonel Barris, and Major Wyan make many requests for him to translate, going as far as to call him an expert. When Thrawn boards the Strikefast, Parck and Thrawn make use of his understanding of Sy Bisti to communicate. Even emperor Palpatine notices Eli and distinguishes him as Thrawn’s translator from the whole group visiting him. No matter what Vanto does, the eyes of others are on him for his select knowledge about a language and people of Wild Space. On the other hand, C-3PO is always seen on the periphery, an observer or and an advisor. Eli is in the thick of this situation and desperately wants to break out.

After Eli and Thrawn both graduate from the Imperial Naval Academy on Coruscant they are given their assignment on the Blood Crow. It is here the reader is given a glimpse into how repulsed Eli is to the small control he holds over his own life. He was awarded the rank of Ensign and given the job of assistant to lieutenant Thrawn. This was not his goal! This is not what he had intended. This is not what he signed up for! He was supposed to be an up-and-coming supply officer not attached to the hip of Thrawn. This situation thrusts Eli to a complete parallel with C-3PO. He is now the “tag-along” and he hates it. This is where I am left excited and filled with what-ifs about Ensign Eli Vanto. I appreciate how Timothy Zhan has taken a human translator character who has a set of skills, hopes, dreams, and aspirations for his future, but he is thrust into a trajectory that has absolutely nothing to do with those things. I find myself relating to Eli because I am at the stage of my life where I am questioning whether what I think I want is equivalent to what I am meant to do in my life. Do I go with the flow and let outside influences direct my path or should I fight for what I want? At this point Eli is faced with this same predicament and I am very interested in the choices he makes throughout the rest of the story. 

As of writing this article, I predict he will come to appreciate his new position because he will realize that Thrawn is a powerful ally to have, but still resent what has happened to him. He will cultivate new skills, become more proficient in strategic/tactical thinking, and maybe be given an opportunity to choose between his loyalty to Thrawn or his chosen career. Eli Vanto averts the translator archetype headlined by C-3PO in such an elegant and thoughtful way. Only more reading will tell what Eli decides.

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